By: Angie Haddock
Set on the Korean island of Jeju, “The Island of Sea Women” follows Mi-ja and Young-sook, two girls from very different backgrounds, as they begin working in the sea with their village’s all-female diving collective. Over many decades—through the Japanese colonialism of the 1930s and 1940s, World War II, the Korean War, and the era of cellphones and wet suits for the women divers—Mi-ja and Young-sook develop the closest of bonds. Nevertheless, their differences are impossible to ignore: Mi-ja is the daughter of a Japanese collaborator, forever marking her, and Young-sook was born into a long line of haenyeo and will inherit her mother’s position leading the divers. After hundreds of dives and years of friendship, forces outside their control will push their relationship to the breaking point.
I knew absolutely nothing about the island of Jeju – or diving, really – going into this book. But, it seemed like solid historical fiction material – a friendship that survives decades, and all the things that happen during those decades.
We meet Young-sook in 2008, when she is already quite old. The “present day” chapters are fewer and shorter than the various flashback ones, though, and that’s where the real story starts to develop.
Young-sook and Mi-ja meet when they are still children, and Mi-ja is new to the village of Hado. Young-sook’s mother is the chief of her diving collective, but they also have some crops to care for on dry land. Mi-ja originally helps with some of this work, in exchange for some food. As they grow older, they also learn to dive together, and even travel to other countries to make more money.
We learn early on that the women in this village are the true heads of their households – at least, where “making a living” is concerned – and the husbands usually stay home and take care of babies. The roles of men and women are debated often, especially while the women are gossiping before or after a day of diving.
Early on, there are two diving accidents that change Young-sook’s life, and the makeup of their collective. Another young diver, only a few years older than her, has an accident that she never fully recovers from. While the girl lives, she is unable to speak again. Not long after, Young-sook loses her mother. This makes her the family’s primary breadwinner.
In their early twenties, Young-sook and Mi-ja enter into arranged marriages, and start having babies. This is where their lives start to diverge, as Mi-ja moves away to live with her husband’s family in the city.
While there is already a lot of personal drama this far into the story, the worst is yet to come.
Things first start to change on Jeju during the World War II years. They were already under the control of the Japanese, who most of them despised, but after the war they now have to contend with Americans. The division of North and South Korea also affects them, as does internal fighting between the government and rebels who want an independent election.
The story takes some brutal turns that I was not prepared for. The adage that came to my mind is “the personal is political,” as these women’s daily lives are definitely affected by the things going on in Korea and in the world at large. One very climactic event was based on real events that happened in 1948-1949. The government then made it basically illegal for people to talk about what happened for decades afterward! Even when the events were publicly acknowledged, and no longer a secret, many older folks – like those in the fictional Young-sook’s age range – still had trouble talking about it, because they had kept their secrets for so long. This aspect of the story was both fascinating and disturbing.
Near the end of the story, I started putting together one “twist,” if you will. The final chapter confirmed my theory, but also still held two more heartbreaking revelations.
Life on Jeju, especially back in the 1930s, was such a different world to me, that it did take me a few chapters to really get into this one. But I loved the strong female characters from early on, and was intrigued by their way of life. That way of life changed drastically over the decades, but the personal and political dramas within their lives became the bigger story.
If you’re a fan of historical fiction, or want to learn more about cultures much different from American/modern culture, this one might be a good pick. But be forewarned that there are some brutal scenes.